As a teen, Michael Anderson experienced horrific abuse at the hands of an infamous south Florida reform school. Now in his 60s, he tells his story of immense suffering -- and redemption -- to Uncommon Journalism.
Photograph courtesy of Michael Anderson.
By: James Swift
In 1954, Michael Anderson’s family moved halfway across the country, from Los Angeles to Wichita, Kan. His parents would soon divorce, with his mother gaining custody. In the early 1960s, Anderson was uprooted once more, this time relocating to southern Florida.
“My mother was a single mother, and we were very poor,” Anderson, now 65, recalled. “We have had our electricity shut off and we had to eat eggs morning, noon and night.”
He was often upset with his mother, whose boyfriends routinely beat him. At one point, he ended up stealing a car and going on a joyride; when he was 15, he was apprehended for stealing a shirt from a Jordan Marsh department store.
In 1965, Anderson was sent to the Florida School for Boys’ Okeechobee campus. All he had heard about the reform school, he recalled, was that it was “a bad place.”
His first day at the facility -- alternately known as the Industrial School for Boys -- a cottage father asked Anderson where he was from.
“I said ‘West Palm Beach,’” he recounted. “And he almost knocked me out.”
The reform school, Anderson recalled, was “very militaristic” and “very regimented.” With a few exceptions, the school was populated by high school and middle school-aged youths.
“They had their own vernacular, and you have to get acclimated to it,” Anderson said. “It was a society, within a society.”
The kids at the school, he said, had a tendency to form cliques. “The West Palm Beach Boys,” he said, “looked out for each other.”
While Anderson’s interaction with fellow residents was largely amiable, he said his interactions with the adults at the facility was anchored around something else.
“Mostly,” he said, “just fear.”
Inside the "Unit"
Anderson said he had heard stories about the “Adjustment Unit” from other residents.
“It was an awful place to go,” he said. “If you ran, or if you got caught with a cigarette like I did, then you were in deep shit.”
He recalled his first trip there.
“Mr. [Donald] Johns, who was one of the administrators…drove up on the lawn up Adams Cottage, and he says ‘get on in here, boy.’”
The man held a cigarette butt between his fingers. “This is yours, isn’t it?,” Anderson said he was asked. He admitted the cigarette was his. At the time, he said he was angry because he believed one of his cohabitants had snitched on him -- “puking,” the boys at the facility called it.
Anderson was handcuffed, and placed in Johns’ vehicle, a dark green 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air. After mumbling “fucking puke,” Anderson said Johns slammed on the brakes. Anderson recalled his forehead crashing against the dashboard.
“He just commenced beating the baby Jesus out of me,” he said. “I had a split lip, black eyes, lumps all over my head. My nose was bleeding…he just pummeled me for a good time, and then he said something like, ‘well, I’m sorry about that.’”
For the next four weeks, Anderson said he was locked up at the “Adjustment Unit.” His meals, Anderson recalled, were “very skimpy.” After a month there, he said he had lost 10 pounds.
Despite having a “fairly high ceiling,” Anderson said the dimensions of his cell were quite cramped -- seven feet deep, and perhaps six feet wide. His “bed” was a thin mattress -- “one and a half to two inches thick, maximum” -- atop a concrete slab. The cell, he recalled, was always freezing; inside it, a lone light bulb hummed all day and night.
“A somnambulistic like-consciousness became a natural state of mind,“ Anderson described the experience. “Both night and day disappeared into one long caliginous continuum.”
One day, Johns opened the door to Anderson’s cell. He was then taken to a room, where three men, including the state school psychologist, had been waiting for him.
“They set me on a bed, and I looked up at the ceiling and noticed all of these black marks,” Anderson recalled. “There were just hundreds of them.”
One of the men in the room, Anderson said, was Frank Zych. With a prosthetic leg, the sight of Zych walking around campus “like a pirate” often terrified the young residents.
“He said something to the effect of ‘you’re in a heap of trouble, boy,” Anderson recalled. “He pulled his leg up, and it went right between my two legs, almost hitting my genitalia.”
According to Anderson, Zych then produced a “torture instrument.”
“You could say it’s a paddle, but you’d be wrong,” he said. He described the weapon as being nearly three feet in length.
“You know what this is, boy?” Zych allegedly told Anderson. “That’s the remedy for your lack of respect for the rules.”
He said he was forced to face a wall and grasp the bed with both hands. His heart began racing. In lock-up, he remembered the sounds of fellow residents marching down the hallway. What followed after that, he said, were loud blasting noises and “blood curdling” screams.
The men, Anderson said, then took turns whipping him.
“Johns, when he first hit me, it sounded just like a rifle shot,” he stated.
Anderson further described the beating.
“It was like a mushroom cloud traveling up the base of your spine, and exploding in your head,“ he said, “It feels like the top of your skull is blown off when you register the pain.”
After a fourth lashing, Anderson said he turned to his side, and begged for the men to stop.
“That was the worst mistake I ever made,” he said, “because they’re not interested in apologies at this point.”
Johns’ face, Anderson said, resembled that of a madman. “His eyes were bulging, he was sweating profusely and this whip thing was on its way down, on me.” he said. “It hit me on the side of my pelvis. It just felt like it pulverized my hip.”
Anderson recalled Johns’ reaction. “Now,” he allegedly stated, “we’ve got to start all over again.”
Afterwards, Anderson said his buttocks felt like water balloons. “I think all the capillaries and muscle tissue, the upper epidural, down to the meat, was just ruptured,” he said.
“It’s not black and blue, it’s not purple...it’s solid black.”
|The Florida School for Boys campus being constructed in Okeechobee in the late 1950s. Photograph courtesy of the Florida Memory Program.|
Not the Only Victim
“A lot of these people are from the South, the people who ran the reform school,” Anderson said. “It’s a carryover from the plantation days. That’s why I live in California now…I wanted to get as far away from Florida as I possibly could.”
Before he left the Okeechobee campus, he had one last experience at the “Adjustment Unit.” A resident had spilled candy all over the road, and Anderson and some of his peers picked it up. He said he was thankful that they were allowed to keep their pants on for the subsequent whipping.
“It was just awful mental torture, as well,” he said. “I didn’t think I would ever get out of Okeechobee.”
Very few of his peers, however, made the same terrifying treks that he did. “Most kids were just scared shitless to do anything subversive,” he said.
The absolute worst punishments, he said, were reserved for residents who attempted to run away. His friend William Bodinghaus -- nicknamed Chip Tracy -- was one such example.
For six months, Chip simply disappeared from the campus. “As it turned out, he and another boy ran away and got to the city of Okeechobee,” Anderson said. “According to Chip, they shot and killed the other kid.” For his escape, Chip received a bullet to his shoulder.
“He told me what they did to him,” Anderson recalled. “He went down, and had gotten 100-something licks…he couldn’t walk, for weeks.”
Forgotten, and Remembered
The Okeechobee campus, opened in 1959, was a satellite site for the Florida School for Boys, a reform school opened in 1900 in the Florida panhandle.
At the Marianna, Fla. facility, allegations and corroborated reports of resident abuse ran rampant for more than a century. In late January, a University of South Florida excavation team announced that 55 bodies had been exhumed from burial sites at the shuttered campus -- a total twice as high as school records had officially listed.
Roger Kiser, founder of an organization for former residents called the White House Boys, spent time at the northern Florida campus in his youth.
“I was at Marianna when the Okeechobee school opened and I remember boys from south Florida being loaded onto buses to be transferred there,“ he recalled. “I don’t know a lot about the Okeechobee school except what I have heard from the fellows who were there whom I have met over the past few years.”
Many of the staffers at Okeechobee were former employees at the Marianna campus, Kiser said. “Especially the cruel, harsh ones,” he said, “to make sure the school was operated in the same cruel manner.”
Kiser’s website contains stories written by dozens of former Florida School for Boys residents. References to the “Adjustment Unit” -- also commonly called “the Library” -- are common throughout accounts penned by ex-Okeechobee residents.
While national attention, largely derived from the ongoing excavations, has been given to Marianna, Kiser said that abuses at Okeechobee remain far less publicized.
“As I formed the White House Boys organization, the Okeechobee boys just became a part of that so not much was ever said about that school until much later and the press ran with Marianna and not the Okeechobee school,“ Kiser said. “The reason for that was the deaths at Marianna…Okeechobee boys were still talking about the beatings and the press had heard enough of those stories.”
|The shuttered Florida School for Boys campus as it stands today in Marianna. The facility was officially closed following a scathing United States Department of Justice report released in 2011.|
A Freed Man?
Although he hates to make the comparison, Anderson said the only thing comparable to the joy he felt after being released from Okeechobee would be the jubilation experienced by a freed plantation slave.
“That’s the only thing I can think of,” he said, “that would come close to the experience.”
Begrudgingly, Anderson said that his experiences at the Florida School for Boys were “successful” in deterring him from pursuing a life of crime. However, those same experiences instilled in him a severe mistrust of authority figures.
“I didn’t want to get on the wrong side of the law ever again,” he said. “I have a deep, deep fear and hatred for all things authoritarian.”
Cops, judges, the government; “I will not cross the line with these people,” Anderson said. “Because I know what they’re capable of.”
After leaving Florida, Anderson attended the University of California, Berkeley. He then went to graduate school at Kings College London, where he studied advanced mathematics and physics, with an emphasis on superstring theory.
Throughout his career, however, he was beset by constant anxiety and an inability to focus. After retiring as a computer programmer, Anderson took a cruise to Alaska. “As I started to relax,” he said, “Okeechobee kept coming up.”
While Anderson told several individuals about his experiences at Okeechobee, he said few believed his claims. “Get over it, Mike, you just got a paddling,” he said some would tell him. “This was a beating, a horrible whipping,” Anderson would respond. “It was torture, and they don’t want to talk to you.”
Throughout his life, Anderson said his experiences at the facility had a “tremendous subliminal control” over him.
“I realized that all these years, I had this horrible baggage in my soul that just causing me to be anxious and angry,” he said. “Maybe I could’ve gotten a solution quicker if I had psychiatric analysis…but I figured it out on my own, and that’s when I started to write about it.”
He soon began conducting online research about the Florida School for Boys and encountered hundreds of former residents whom shared similar experiences. Anderson then created his own website, The Infamous Adjustment Unit, to discuss his experiences at Okeechobee.
“It was just a tremendous cathartic, washing away of this anger,” Anderson said. “I’m still angry, but at least I know why I’m angry, and I can calm myself down.”
Searching for Justice
Anderson’s father, at the age of 84, was killed in a traffic accident. As part of a civil suit, he recalled another victim in the accident -- a young boy who had sustained major injuries -- receiving $2 million.
“I flash back to when I was 16-years-old,” Anderson said. “They took a year and a half out of my life, the precious part of my life…so how do I put a price tag on that?”
A major barrier to former Florida School for Boys residents seeking compensation, he said, have been statutes of limitations.
“That’s got to be repealed,” he said. “There should be absolutely no federal limitations for torture or extreme sexual abuse.”
He likens the victims in Florida to the victims of the myriads of Catholic priest sex abuse scandals. “There’s always this caveat about the statutes of limitations,” he said. “They’re using the same goddamned loophole.”
Later this year, Anderson said he plans on going on a month-long “fact-finding mission” in south Florida. It will be his first time stepping foot in Okeechobee in nearly half a century. “I’ve been meaning to get back the last couple of years,” he said. “Because I want to take pictures of it, and I want to investigate it.”
Over the years, Anderson has contemplated the toll that his experiences at the reform school has taken on his life.
“When kids get into trouble and kids have issues, beating me worked,” he said. “It stopped me from becoming a criminal, but it fucks them up so bad that I can’t tell you how many bad relationships and bad social problems I’ve had because of this issue.”
In hindsight, he thinks about how humane treatments, like counseling, could’ve improved the lives of so many ex-residents.
“I think most of the times when kids get in trouble, it’s because there are problems at home,” he concluded. “I just don’t believe there’s such a notion as ‘the bad seed’…I just think there’s got to be a better way to help kids when they are in trouble than torture.”
Uncommon Journalism, 2014.